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How Will Europe Recycle Mounting Plastic Waste?

Consumer Goods and Retail | Aug, 2021

Responsible disposing of trash is a concern for communities around the world. For years, wealthy nations have been discarding their trash to Asian countries, which are incapable of managing the piling waste. Recently, the European Union made a decision to ban export of plastic waste that came into force from January 2021. Although the ban is a decent step taken in the right direction, achieving the goal of becoming a plastic free region by 2030 seems over-ambitious for Europe.


Every year between 150,000 and 500,000 tons of plastic waste end up in Europe’s seas or exported to Asian countries or incinerated, which has devastating consequences on the ecosystem. The plastic packaging recycling rates in the European Union (EU) have reached an all-time high of 41.5%, approx., three times that of the United States. Under the EU Plastics Strategy, put forward in 2018, all the plastic packaging in the EU market must be recyclable by 2030. Europe is expected to recycle almost 50% of the plastic packaging by 2025.


The trailblazing efforts to address almost 28 million tons of plastic waste generated in the United States annually are now driving investments and innovation towards a circular economy, in which products and materials are kept in use by recycling and reuse through their entire life cycle.


Till 2020, United Kingdom used to send two-thirds of plastic waste to the global south countries such as Malaysia, Pakistan, Vietnam, and Indonesia. On January 1, 2021, an EU law preventing the dumping of unsorted and contaminated plastic waste to non-OECD countries came into force. The so-called “dumping grounds” for western countries do not have the capacity to manage the waste, and most of it is either burned or buried, which could have detrimental effects on the local communities.


Ahead of the Chinese ban on import of solid waste that took effect in the beginning of 2018, the Europe’s export of plastic waste to China fell dramatically but boosted the flow of waste to other Asian countries. The Chinese ban on import of plastic waste coincides with the European Union’s plan of shifting to a circular economy.


Is EU Recycling Industry Ready to Scale Up?

Plastic recycling rates are significantly low in Europe, with only 30% of the waste collected undergoing treatment. Despite multiple efforts made by the chemical industry to expand access to recycling, adopt new technology, and grow sustainability efforts, many existing recyclers have made little progress in achieving the set targets.


Many European plastic recyclers collect plastic waste from industrial sources such as construction, agriculture, automotive, and industrial packaging. However, several complications such as lower feedstock quality, higher contamination, or existing alternative routes tend to hinder the flow of industrial plastics to the recycling industries. Many European recyclers struggle to overcome the lack of product standardization, inefficient sortation process, and volatile consumer demand, prompting short-term liquidity challenges and potential for additional regulations. Among European countries, Germany is leading the way in plastic recycling with only 0.1% of plastic packaging ending in landfills whilst Spain’s 38.2% of the waste goes to dump.


According to PlasticsEurope, the plastic waste sent for recycling has soared by 92% while landfilling has fallen by 54% since 2006. A recent surge in chemical recycling technologies has been observed in the recent years due to their ability to break down plastic polymers either into building blocks or cracked liquid polymers. The end products can be processed and transformed into new plastic resins or other petrochemical products such as fuels. Besides, chemical recycling is an effective alternative to recycle low-quality plastic, that cannot be processed mechanically. However, the chemical recycling technologies are in their nascent stage and their ecological footprint and economic viability are major limitations that could hinder their application in the long-term.


Poor product recyclability, volatile customer demand, inefficient quality of sorting, feedstock contamination, and lack of material standardization are some of the biggest challenges for plastic recycling market in Europe. However, government mandates for recycled content, growing public awareness about plastic waste recycling, and removing stigma associated with waste as a raw material can help to improve overall plastic recycling business. Besides, levying taxes on virgin materials or providing subsidies for the use of recyclates can further help to boost the growth of Europe plastic recycling market. Although waste generation results in the release of environmental pollutants, technological innovation is expected to reduce its negative impact.


Sweden Zero Waste Model

More than half of the world’s trash ends up in landfills that contaminate soil, groundwater, and air by emitting greenhouse gases. But Sweden is the only country with less than 1% waste in landfills whereas the rest is used for energy production by process called waste-to-energy (WTE). According to Swedish Cleantech, Sweden’s waste management system helps to recover more energy from each ton of waste than any other country. Over the years, the country has become so self-sufficient that it nearly imports 800,000 tons of waste from other neighboring countries such as UK, Italy, Norway, and Ireland for its 32 WTE plants. The Swedish law also hold waste producers liable and make them handle costs related to the collection and recycling or disposing off their products.


Sweden has made recycling not only convenient but also accessible. Swedish citizens get discount vouchers as a reward for utilizing the recycling machines whereas recycling stations can be found at most 300 meters from any residential area. In new urban developments, waste chutes have been designed to covert waste into energy for generating electricity.


Germany Plastic Recycling Model

One of the richest countries in Europe, Germany generates the largest amount of waste, but the nation has the largest plastic recycling market. The Green Dot system has been one of the most successful recycling initiatives introduced in the country, which enforces manufacturers and retailers to pay for a Green Dot product. In Germany, more packaging means higher fees. The initiative has led to less paper consumption, reduced metal usage, and thinner glasses, which results in less garbage for recycling (approx. one million tons less garbage annually).


Germany is the world champion in waste separation as the different types of garbage are collected and recycled separately. The waste separation process starts at households where the consumers dispose the trash in the right container and then the employees or sorting personnel at the recycling facilities separate waste properly, which saves effort and decreases cost. Most supermarkets have automatic bottle return machines, which allow Germans to gobble up their discarded bottles and receive 8 cents per glass bottle and 25 cents for plastic bottles. The proper waste assortment makes the plastic recycling process efficient and thus, Germans are able to manage their large piles of garbage without piling it in the landfills.


While a top-down approach of the European Parliament can help to manage the plastic waste to a certain extent, it is essential that citizens are informed and willing to get involved in reducing plastic consumption.


Currently, packaging industry accounts for 40% of European plastic production, whereas further 22% plastic is used for furniture and household goods, 20% for construction and building materials, while rest for automobiles and electrical appliances. Limiting the use of plastic to those cases where it is the only option could help reduce plastic consumption substantially. There is a need to consider the consequences and rework the product by being eco-conscious. For instance, the classic straws made out of plastic are being widely replaced with paper, glass, bamboo, or metal straws.


Increasing the application of bioplastics (composed of polylactic acid) and biodegradable plastics made from plant materials like corn sugar, potato, or sugarcane can reduce the demand for fossil fuels and wastage in the environment.


The European Parliament has shown resolution on this front by introducing strict limitations on the use of plastic carrier bags that could no longer be provided free of charge and banning microplastics’ use in cosmetics. Subsequently, the European Parliament has approved ban on single-use plastic objects, the lifespan of which lasts for only few minutes.



The coronavirus pandemic has brought a “plastic pandemic” with the growing use of disposable masks, PPE kits, gloves, and bags to avoid the spread of infection. Besides, the growth of e-commerce owing to lockdown restrictions in Europe has amplified the plastic use. However, the European Parliament has proposed to the European Commission to improve recyclability, reduce packaging, and promote reuse of plastics.  Brand owners, recyclers, and other market players have a role to play in scaling plastic recycling and adopting sustainability for a greener and cleaner planet.